Why the TV audience for football is falling, and what it means for the future of football

By Tony Attwood

TV money funds the Premier League.  Not just Big Time, but Very Big Time.

OF course if the TV companies started to lose interest in the Premier League, then nothing would happen much at the start as the TV companies would be forced to continue to pay for live programme rights they now can’t afford.

Then the TV companies would go back to the clubs and seek to renegotiate, perhaps paying for the current mad deal over a longer period of time.  And all the while the clubs would know that with the next deal, income would drop dramatically.

That would mean that salaries and transfer fees would start to drop.  Any players on very high wages would be offered for sale – but the players would probably refuse to move if everyone bidding for them was offering less than half their current wages.

Youth players would be in very high demand.  Clubs with well established youth policies would be helped, but some other clubs would go into liquidation or be bought up on the cheap.

And all that as a starter if TV audiences started to drop.

Which is why a large number of people are looking on with anxiety as figures are starting to emerge showing that the ratings for football have started to fall.  Premier League games on Sky Sports are getting 20% lower audiences than last year.  Champions League matches are showing 40% lower audiences. Could the unthinkable be happening? Could fans finally be turning off?

Questions are being asked, and answers being provided – although not necessarily the answers that are accurate.   There is talk that people are cutting back their subscriptions because of their decline in living standards and worries about the future – particularly the UK leaving the EU.   Others suggest that given the vast array of product on Netflix, there is always something better to watch.  Yet more speak of the fact you can follow a game on Twitter.

A few, like Untold, note the way in which football is presented on TV, and a growing awareness of the fact that commentators are often ill-informed, see the game from an utterly different point of view from that of the fans and that many media outlets are biased.  Plus a growing thinking among some that there is something amiss with refereeing and the PGMO.

All in all presentation is akin to a Martian taking over news and current affairs broadcasting on the BBC.  Its ability to judge what makes news, and its ability to comment on the news meaningfully would be somewhere around Pluto on a scale of the Earth the the Moon.

Meanwhile, the Olympics, the weather and the success of Leicester (who attract smaller audiences) are all blamed by the TV companies, desperate beyond measure to ensure that no one suggests there is anything wrong with their presentation of their product.

But throw in a realisation that the images we see on TV are manipulated to show a “more exciting product”, and the realisation that started some years back that commentators have no connection at all with everyday fans, and disillusion grows.

Some of course still watch, but with increasing numbers watching with the sound turned off (thus making them immune to the message of advertisers) those advertisers are starting to ask if it is really worthwhile.  Add in a growing awareness of the corruption of football officialdom… well, there isn’t much positive to say about media coverage.

But that is not all, for there is also the hype.  Hype is ok, up to a point, but there was a feeling that the point was overrun by several light years for the Liverpool / Manchester United match.  Given that the match was such a disaster, it is hard for the writers of the promotions to regain any credibility at all.

But there are always excuses.  Simon Green, the head of BT Sport, told The Guardian that we ought to take account of “the weather.”

Everything can and does have an effect – but probably the biggest effect of all, and the one the TV industry is least set up to deal with is the fact that stuff happens and things change.  In short, we do not behave this year as we did last year.

Part of the reason for this is technological.  Part of it is social.  And both of those parts are hard to judge.

No one knows the impact of each technological change before it comes along.  Each one is created to make money for its investors – without any thought on how it will change the way people behave.  We might guess at such changes, but we always guess wrong.  The washing machine was going to give women so much spare time they wouldn’t know what to do with it all.  The TV was going to destroy the theatre and the cinema.

At the same time, everyone now ignores social trends, because for so many years people have believed that there is no such thing as society.  And yet society is still there – we are all swayed by the groups of people we know, and larger social pressure.

Football in the 1970s was a tribal togetherness device for deviants and maniacs.  Now it is presented as a family affair delivered to customers.

Of course there is no real worrying going on in football itself.  After all, if football can be inexorably linked to the most obnoxious and corrupt organisation in the world (Fifa) while being run in England by the most inept bunch of old farts on the planet (FA), and get away with it, then what’s the problem?   “We’ve got away with this for years,” is the thinking, “why should it change now?”

Such an attitude of course adds to the chance of collapse.   It might seem ludicrous and impossible now, but we have had a broadcaster with TV rights go down – Setanta.  The players are bigger now, but in the end they could still pull the plug.

As I say, for the clubs the problem of a major disruption to broadcasting would be a major drop in income, while the clubs have players on impossible contracts who cannot be sold on.

A slippage in that TV audience could spell disaster, and this season we are seeing a slippage in that TV audience.

Recent tales from Untold 

Wenger ponders whether Yaya Sanogo will ever really be good enough for Arsenal. 

How are some of this summer’s big value transfers doing thus far? A case study

With a quarter of the season gone, how much value have clubs got from their summer transfer spending?

Inattentive journalists and pundits totally bemused by the notion of offside

Manipulative, misleading and ill informed: the debate over empty seats at the Ems

Arsenal – Middlesbrough : 0-0 too slow and not precise enough in the passing

Arsène’s birthday message: “It’s not as easy as it looks”. Arsenal v Middlesbrough – the teams and stuff.


20 Replies to “Why the TV audience for football is falling, and what it means for the future of football”

  1. A nice article… That’s true. And adding to this is the change in the broadcasting to HD… People watch football because it’s a game .. Not a movie.HD isn’t that cheap in my place, you can surely see the viewers decrease.. Hope something changes.. Even the commentator’s, So biased..thats wrong..real wrong

  2. One of the reasons for the decline in Sky’s viewing figures is people using Amazon Fire sticks or similar loaded with Kodi.

    Pretty well everyone I know has unsubscribed from Sky and is using Kodi instead.

  3. Reasons for the turn off

    Saturation coverage. The next game is the best one ever.

    Cost of subscription.

    Free streaming sites

    Quality of football being played. Parking the bus is now a defensive masterclass. If both sides played like this then the game will die. More and more teams are playing like this. It’s easier to coach this than fluid attacking football.

    Bias pundits/presenters.

    My biggest pet hate. Ill informed, lazy, incoherent pundits that present the sterotypical view of each argument. Little original thought or critical thinking. Pundits who are payed small fortunes but do no research and just peddle the perceived view on a topic whether it’s right or wrong. I no longer watch any pre or post match analysis. As viewers we are deemed to be stupid and are to take everything these moronic pundits and ex players say.

  4. some great points, and a worry for the industry.
    a real problem, if you have enough bandwidth, can easily stream games, but take the point not everyone has that level of bandwidth.
    football may need to change the way it runs and markets itself.
    Commentators really are not worth listening to, most newspaper articles are not worth reading

  5. The two main audience figures quoted by TV Companies are the average (from opening titles to end titles) or the peak audience i.e. the highest audience achieved throughout the duration of the show. The former is used as a guide to potential advertising exposure being offered while the latter is more of a PR tool not least because its the biggest number available.
    An average audience can of course also be calculated for the match only but in no report of this decline in viewing is there reference to which audience figure has actually slipped. It could be that the match figures have stayed the same (or even risen) but that the overall programme audience has fallen because that to the surrounding discussion/punditry has maybe dropped dramatically.
    Untold is not alone in highlighting the drivel that is often spoken in these sessions and it would be no surprise to learn that viewers are switching on later and off earlier to avoid it. I usually watch games ‘muted’ and others I know have told me they will do the same especially with some commentators/summarisers. The Robbie Savage factor may be looming ever larger!
    All in all we need to know a great deal more about the numbers before drawing a conclusion but one thing is certain – football on TV is no longer the novelty it once was and over familiarity has the potential to breed the beginnings of contempt especially when the quality of the entertainment can be so variable.

  6. The broadcasters like sky, bbc, etc then sell it to other tv channels around the world. Unless the quality of the PL dips which from the current standings look more livelier than ever I don’t reckon sky,bbc etc are gonna loose on their investment. Infact in my country they stopped airing on existing standard def and HD channels & started two new channels for f1,PL, Bundesliga. I had read of several individuals changing service providers because the new channels were not aired on their existing connections. So I think the deals are only going to get more audacious and ludicrous as time goes on.

  7. More people are streaming the football instead of paying for ridiculous contracts. Here in Australia the premier league has moved to Optus. A company that seems to have no idea how to deliver to the public. It used to be on Foxtel (Sky) and the delivery and presentation was fantastic. They lost the bid and we are left with an inferior product from Optus. So lots of people turning to streaming and telling Optus to go F themselves.
    I personally think that the commentators and presenters are pretty poor and very biased towards certain teams. It is always better to mute them.
    Audio of just the crowd noise is far better. This used to be an option on Sky, don’t know if it still is.

  8. Setanta was a parvenu. Sky and BT are huge entities with deep pockets that rely on football content especially to drive sales. In this day and age, content is king, and football is the king of content. So there’s no fear that they’ll collapse before this four (five?) year TV rights cycle ends, and they won’t be able to renegotiate. So the crunch will come when the next auction for rights comes up.

    The FA has just signed six-season overseas broadcasting rights for one billion quid. However, the buyers are some some marketing agency I’ve never heard of and IMG. Now they could turn out to be the new Setantas.

  9. Some important points made above.

    As a subscriber to both Sky and BT, I have considered unsubscribing from one or the other, but living in the country, if I want to see Arsenal, I need to be subscribed to both.

    However, the insidious way that BOTH platforms raised prices is extremely annoying. Sky actually LOST the Champions League to BT, then put their prices up by 10%. BT have also increased their price.

    I don’t need commentators, I can see pictures. After all, unlike American Football (NFL), there are no commentators at a UK football match. Doing away with commentators (whose commentary is usually biased, unrelated gibberish), would bring the cost down considerably. In fact, why not make “commentary” an optional extra? I always listen to music whilst watching games on TV because the commentary is both annoying and unnecessary.

    It looks as though the Aussie coverage has followed the same lines as here in the UK. For all their faults, Sky is a much more professional broadcaster than BT, whose camera coverage is mostly atrocious for the price they charge.

    The FA and PGMOL are also major reasons for dissatisfaction with the EPL – and we as Arsenal supporters can appreciate that probably more than most.

  10. I think that the tv companies could save a bundle by sacking the present crop of commentators and experts . I just couldn’t endure last night’s program where Dion Dublin and Don Hutchinson were expounding profusely their exceptionally limited knowledge on tactics and management .

    I only watched as they were tearing into ManUre ( and rightly so !) for their folly and failure against Chelsea.
    And they did find each others company and comments rather amusing . I did not.
    The host – well he just sat in his chair mostly . He may even have taken several power naps when these two were at it.

    My plan would be to show highlights , goals and footage from the past . When commentators spoke the Queen’s English . And when they took care to dress up well. And you learned something new and refreshing from each show and every personality.

    I do hope that they have saved for a rainy day , as I really don’t think that they may be able to be gainfully employed elsewhere !

  11. I’d love to think it’s mostly down to the quality of football which, thanks to bus parking, is in decline, but the article and the comments raise lots of other good reasons for it.

    Gotta confess, I’ve never quite nailed the proper usage of irony, but I think the quality of football declining largely because of the money tv companies are paying… leading, eventually, to falling tv figures, might just be a delicious irony.

    Aside from the bigger teams, I’d definitely tune in to watch Bournemouth, but not many others.

  12. As an avid TV viewer of football (only involving Arsenal FC),as well as other sports, I find it difficult to accept that TV audiences globally are declining.
    Even in the poorest of Third World countries, the standard wage would appear to have increased sufficiently so as to permit the purchase of television sets (which would seem to be a priority buy).
    I do not accept that the lowering or loss of sound has a detrimental effect on advertising, simply because during actual play, there are no adverts.
    I do not think the quality or otherwise of the commentators is of much importance. Their chatter is generally ignored in favour of the excitement of the occasion.(it is in my home anyhow).
    I do agree however, that increasing subscriptions by broadcasters are causing some viewers to leave.
    I have long felt that the quite obscene escalation of players’ wages and transfer fees is solely due to the advent of commercial TV, coupled with the inevitable advertising. In my view this “bubble” is eventually bound to burst, although I do not think it will affect global TV viewing figures. The TV set has dominance now in many homes.
    On the subject of streaming, I do not feel that this form of viewing is an adequate substitute for TV. Reception is still far too unreliable, as Walter will no doubt testify.
    Finally, I often think that those who are able to watch or partake in live sport and particularly statisticians, have little understanding of the importance of TV to those of restricted mobility, plus the millions of viewers in distant lands, whose only real connection with the outside world is through television. 😉

  13. Maybe if the TV companies would only show the match and not the managers the audience may go up again. As much as I like Wenger I get angry when they show him during a match when the ball is in play. Or any other manager of course. I don’t pay to watch them as I could watch a picture of them if I really wanted to. I pay to watch the ball go from left to right on my screen and nothing else.

  14. Very simple for me. I had Sky Sports for many years but cancelled my subscription nearly two years ago due to a change in personal circumstance.I have no current desire to reinstate it. Although I love watching football I will not pay the prices charged by either Sky or BT and most definitely at those prices will not have two subscriptions. So, I have neither.

  15. The cost of SKY and BT has had an affect. People don’t want to pay 2 subscriptions so they look for an alternative way to view one of the channels and learn that they can see both channels (and drop both subscriptions) with KODI or just a good on-line search.

    As for me, due to the way we share our Season Ticket I get to 4-6 home games at best per season since moving to the Stadium Wenger and watch pretty much every other game either in a pub or stream it.
    However I have now stopped watching more than highlights of any non-Arsenal PL/FA/EFL/CL game as I got fed-up with the appalling quality of the officials, commentators and pundits. What they do/say has very little connection with what my eyes are actually seeing. I followed a reasonable amount of La Liga/Bundesliga etc until this season when I’ve stopped. No idea why really, except I’ve better things to do with my time.

    I suspect part of my cutting back is because I’m reading much less media about forthcoming games, because I’m reading much less football media full stop (due to the extremely low quality of what’s being written. The ‘Hacks’ seem to have such a poor technical understanding of the game that they’ve moved from factual information into writing (and creating) purely emotional articles which make little to anyone with an IQ above double figures.

  16. I agree with all of you about the cost of watching Arsenal FC on one or other of BT or Sky..
    But the point is this…. There are a minimum of 8 remaining Arsenal games on TV this
    year. Of these 5 will be broadcast by BT and 3 by Sky.
    I cannot attend the Emirates or anywhere else so in order to watch all the games I have to subscribe to both broadcasters.
    It’s not cheap but the way I regard it, it is still cheaper than attending the games in person. 😉

  17. Xhaka’spassing
    October 24, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Reasons for the turn off

    Saturation coverage. The next game is the best one ever.

    As near as I can tell, this is a development of sports from the USA. The next games is the best one ever, every player is the best player that ever lived, and so on.

  18. Corruption News

    I gather it is fallout from the USA case, but Fox News is being sued for bribing CONMEBOL officials.

  19. I didn’t read The FA October list too carefully, but it didn’t look like any officials had been charged.

    While there, I dug out the discipline table. We are second in the league, and second lowest on the discipline table. Team names lightly massaged.

    _ Team _ _ _ _ _ _ N _ _ Y _ _ R _ _Points
    1 _Watford _ _ _ _ _10 _ _25 _ _1 _ _110
    2 _Chelsea _ _ _ _ _11 _ _26 _ _0 _ _104
    3 _State Aid United 10 _ _23 _ _1 _ _102
    4 _West Brom Alb _ _10 _ _25 _ _0 _ _100
    5 _Stoke _ _ _ _ _ _11 _ _23 _ _0 _ _ 92
    6 _ManC _ _ _ _ _ _ 10 _ _19 _ _1 _ _ 88
    7 _ManU _ _ _ _ _ _ 10 _ _22 _ _0 _ _ 88
    8 _Sunderland _ _ _ 11 _ _19 _ _1 _ _ 86
    9 _Hull _ _ _ _ _ _ 11 _ _14 _ _2 _ _ 76
    10 Middlesbrough _ _10 _ _19 _ _0 _ _ 76
    11 Spuds _ _ _ _ _ _10 _ _19 _ _0 _ _ 76
    12 Crystal Palace _ 11 _ _19 _ _0 _ _ 76
    13 Everton _ _ _ _ _11 _ _18 _ _0 _ _ 72
    14 Liverpool!!! _ _ 11 _ _17 _ _0 _ _ 68
    15 Swansea _ _ _ _ _11 _ _17 _ _0 _ _ 68
    16 Southampton _ _ _10 _ _16 _ _0 _ _ 64
    17 Leicester _ _ _ _10 _ _13 _ _1 _ _ 62
    18 Bournemouth _ _ _11 _ _13 _ _1 _ _ 62
    19 Arsenal _ _ _ _ _10 _ _12 _ _1 _ _ 60
    20 Burnley _ _ _ _ _10 _ _15 _ _0 _ _ 60

  20. I don’t know about others but here are my reasons:

    1) Need multiple subscriptions (Sky plus BT) costing close to £100 a month and even then you can’t see the 3.00pm kickoffs. You can see 100% of Arsenal games abroad for a fraction of the cost.

    2) I don’t want the FA telling me which games I can watch on TV and which games I need to watch in the stadium. If you’re concerned about stadium attendances, just lower the season ticket prices and I guarantee you the stadium will be full and the football clubs would still make money. You can’t keep squeezing the football loving masses to finance the 250k a week salaries and 80mn transfer fees that benefit no one but a handful of people.

    3) The refeering in EPL. Despite being the richest football league in the world by a mile, if you cannot put in a decent number of quality refs then there is something seriously wrong. I just cannot understand Leicester getting 13 penalties while having only 46% possession Arsenal got 2 penalties all season despite having 56% possession.

    4) The media – pundits repeatedly making repeated, tired and false narratives whilst brown nosing a few selected individuals instead of providing actual fair analysis of the games!

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